The recent large-scale repressions against the democratic society in Belarus, the persecution and internment of public activists, the brutal crackdown on a peaceful demonstration in Minsk on Freedom Day on March 25, may indicate the top political decision to crush the Belarusian patriotic forces, that are capable of rallying broad public dissent to the potential plans for the deployment of a Russian combined arms group in Belarus, the use of the territory of Belarus, as well as its military capabilities, for confrontation, not only with the NATO member countries, but first and foremost, with Ukraine, which is experiencing a hybrid aggression of the Russian Federation, the main ally of Belarus. It looks like Zapad-2017, the strategic military exercises, during which the strike units of the 1st Tank Army of the Western Military District of the Russian Armed Forces will be stationed on the territory of Belarus, are ideal to move towards these goals. Further evidence suggesting existence of these plans is the opening a new information front in Belarus against Ukraine with a provocation carried out on the Belarusian-Ukrainian state border, illegal detentions and arrests of Ukrainian citizens.
In any democratic society, in the time of a socio-economic crisis starts a national dialogue in search of compromises and the way out, whereas the parliamentarians provide a national consensus through the execution of their core functions. This ensures the turnover of the political elite, the inflow into the state administration of new people endowed with relevant competences and the trust of the people, giving development impetus to the state and fully unlocking the human potential.
These truisms do not work in an authoritarian regimes, bent on the concentration of power and self-preservation. Instead of searching for the way out of the crisis, the regime would step up repressions, internment of opposition leaders and public activists. Human potential is utilized for the witch-hunting. The relative periods of “liberalization” and “thaws” are used solely to search for external sources of funding for the cumbersome state administration and law enforcement system.
Today’s Belarus is a quintessential example of a state with an autocratic regime, with a giant and inefficient bureaucratic apparatus, several times exceeding the relevant Soviet indicators, with huge police and internal deterrent forces, with the numbers per capita among the highest in the world. With the countless host of intelligence and security agencies and ideological departments, with infinite Kafka-esque electoral “process”, with illegitimate puppet “parliament” and hysterical frantic efforts to reach the so-called “forecast economic indicators” (reminiscent of the soviet 5-year plans), invariably accompanied by exemplary arrests and prison terms.
All this glass-grown world order which has existed for over two decades, has started to shake, as soon as the lavish flow of cheap Russian energy resources began to dry up. Whereas Belarus has been annually fed about 24 million tons of oil, this year the supplies have been cut, and are unlikely to exceed 18-20 million tons, despite the agreements made between Lukashenko and Putin on April 3. In addition, Belarus is required to pay to Gazprom $726 m of the the outstanding debt. The ruler of Belarus also failed to achieve the gas prices reduction from 132 to 73 dollars per 1 thousand cubic meters. This is mainly due to a deep crisis in Russia driven into an economic dead end by the neo-imperial policy, which was outlined in the famous Munich speech of Putin in 2007, and implemented in the ensuing military aggression against Georgia, Ukraine and Syria. Russia’s economy is under pressure from international sanctions, rapid capital flight and a slump in investments, saddled with crippling expense on defense, domestic and international propaganda and lobbying. Russia’s nominal GDP has dramatically decreased and continues its fall: it is now lower than the GDP of the state of New York and almost equal to the GDP of Spain [1, 2]. In this situation, Russia in no more in position to support and directly or indirectly subsidize the inefficient Belarusian economy.
The situation is further exacerbated by the significant contraction of the Russian market for Belarusian exports, not to mention the slump in the world hydrocarbons prices, whereas mostly refining of oil and re-export of petroleum products have supported the relatively stable functioning of the Belarusian regime. Anticipating significant threats to the regime’s survival, the authorities have started taking unprecedented social, fiscal and other tightening measures. On December 31, 2013, Law No. 96-3 was adopted, which introduced a completely new taxation item – owners of conventional passenger cars with a weight not exceeding one ton would have to pay about $60 for an annual permit to use them. On April 2, 2015, Lukashenko issued Ordinance No. 3 “On preventing freeloading practices”, an unconstitutional decree reminiscent of the darkest labor regulation practices of the soviet times, obliging everyone, who worked less than 183 days a year and is not registered as unemployed, to pay about $ 200 to the state. On April 11, 2016, came out Decree No. 137 on pension age, it would be increasing annually by 6 months, starting from January 01, 2017, until it reaches 63 years for men and 58 years for women. Taking into account the average male life expectancy, which is only 66 years and the inordinate mortality rate, giving Belarus 14 ran in the world, between Botswana and Somalia, not many people will live to see the retirement at all.
These measures are being taken on the back of many private businesses going bankrupt and even the Belarusian economy’s blue chips being chronically unprofitable, the rate of inflation being one of the world’s highest (there have been three devaluations in the last 6 years), an Belarus being the only state in the region in a protracted economic recession (-3,9% of GDP in 2015 and -3% in 2016). All these factors have led to a catastrophic decline in living standards, especially outside of the capital, provoking massive protests across the country, which began on February 17. The protesters started with basically social and economic demands with a political element to them, reflected in slogan “No to Ordinance No. 3 – Lukashenko must go!”, after a short while, only the second part of the slogan remained. The sentiment of the once loyal supporters of Lukashenko is turning sour, in some ways repeating the century-old revolutionary slogans, urging the tsar to get out.
The protests began to actively spread beyond Minsk into regional centers and such towns as Rogachev, Orsha, Pinsk, Bobruisk, Molodechno, where no mass political activity has been observed for a long time. The people are getting angry, as the realization hits that Lukashenko has finally walked away from the social contract, and there are more and more voices demanding immediate deposition of the national leader. Instead of starting a meaningful national dialogue about finding ways to overcome the crisis, consolidate the society, especially in the face of obvious threat of the territory of Belarus turning into the strategic military bridgehead of Russia, the authorities responded in their usual way – the crackdown. However, even before this familiar reaction, the government had started a real information war against not only its domestic opponents, but even its Ukrainian partners. Thus, on March 6 and 12, 2017, Belarus 1 and ONT, the central TV channels made unscheduled changes in their broadcasting feeds and aired a clearly propaganda film titled A Call to a Friend. The film is designed not only to discredit the leaders of the protest movement, but also to link their actions with the Ukrainian side, allegedly intending to organize a Maidan in Belarus. Big part of the film is based on the wiretapped phone conversations of opposition leaders, directly indicating involvement of the security and intelligence agencies of Belarus in the process of making the film. In addition, the state TV channels started to actively reuse the clichés of the Russian media about the Ukrainian “coup“, while demonizing not only the Revolution of Dignity, but Ukraine in general.
Further, on March 20, 2017 there followed an open media provocation with the alleged “border breakthrough” of a SUV full of militants armed with firearms and explosives, from Ukraine to Belarus at Alexandrovka checkpoint. By all indications, it was a media PSYOP with lies along the familiar Russian patterns about “Ukrainian threat” and “Ukraine as a failed state not even able to control its state border”. At the same time, the fact that there was no crossing of the Ukrainian border was officially recognized by the Belarusian side:
Photo: excerpt from the Minutes of the working meeting of the deputy border envoys of Ukraine and the Republic of Belarus on March 20, 2017
The next day, on March 21, 2017, during a visit to Kronospan OSB Mogilev enterprise, Lukashenko states that several dozen militants have been detained, that they had been trained in camps in Ukraine and allegedly were preparing armed provocations. In practice the detainees turned out to be the former members of White Legion, the Belarusian patriotic organization, disbanded about 15(!) years ago, which was active in the late 90s, the members of Patriot, a pro-Belarusian military club and Young Front, a youth opposition organization. At the time of writing, the security agencies have detained 30 people, 18 of whom were charged under part 3 of article 293 of the Criminal Code for allegedly “training and preparation for participation in mass riots”, 9 detainees have been already released. There is also information on the possible initiation of another criminal case under article 287 of the Criminal Code, “Organization of an illegal armed group”.
Hoaxes with invented threat is one Lukashenko’s long proven tools, first tried out as the “shots fird in Liozno” in 1994. It was a staged “assassination attempt” on A. G. Lukashenko, then a presidential candidate in Belarus and former director of Gorodets state farm. By now, the spin has evolved to the “armed militants”, threatening to wreak havoc on “the island of stability and prosperity” in the center of Europe in 2017. Apparently, all this poorly produced show served one purpose – to sow fear and loathing before one of the opposition’s key events – the Freedom Day (the event is traditionally held on March 25, to mark the day of independence declaration of the Belarusian People’s Republic in 1918). Belarusian TV channels constantly replayed a video with an entire “arsenal of weapons” being confiscated from the detainees, such as officially registered pump shotguns, airsoft guns, rifle replicas, dummy hand grenades and cartridges, kitchen knives, axes and entrenching shovels, along with the chevrons of Ukrainian volunteer battalions and the literature about the Maidan revolution.
Screenshot from operational video of Belarusian KGB (https://youtu.be/ucQdUNK9xWg)
Screenshots from operational video of Belarusian KGB (https://youtu.be/8WNYD5533I4)
Government TV channels began to actively spread rumors about the arrival of militants from Ukraine – members of UNA-UNSO and ATO veterans – allegedly to participate in the mass riots on the Freedom Day. The regime propagandists brought up again the “attempted border breakthrough into the territory of Belarus” of a car filled with ammunition and firearms. On the wave of the anti-Ukrainian hysteria, 6 citizens of Ukraine were detained and arrested. Among them, three Protestant preachers of Good News church, who had arrived in Minsk to participate in a Bible seminar and on March 22 were illegally sentenced to 15 days in jail. Other three were detained for participation in the Freedom Day, two of whom have been charged with alleged involvement in the attack on the tax office in Gomel on March 24, when a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the building.
March 25, Freedom Day in Minsk
The reaction of the Ukrainian side was not long in coming, on March 21, The National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting of Ukraine informed the management of Belarus 24 TV channel about the detected discrepancies and the unacceptability of the editorial policy supporting the Russian aggressive actions towards Ukraine, and threatened to consider the termination of retransmission on Ukrainian territory in case of ignoring the requirements. In a briefing on March 22, Oleksandr Tkachuk, the Chief of Staff of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) said that an official request had been sent to the Belarusian side for an explanation as to what Lukashenko meant, painting a vivid picture of the detention of militants fresh from training camps in Ukraine. He also once again refuted the misinformation about the “attemptes breakthrough of the car with the militants” at the Ukrainian-Belarusian border. The same day, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine issued an official comment on the allegations of the Belarusian authorities and stressed that it is the Russian Federation which is waging a hybrid aggression, organizing both on its own territory and in the occupied parts of Ukraine the training camps for mercenaries and militants, supporting and exporting terrorism, deliberately undermining stability and security in the region, which includes both Ukraine and Belarus.
It is noteworthy, that the Belarusian propagandists still recognize that the defendants in the case of White Legion, had no events planned for March 25, and even quote the words of one of the detainees, confirming that they wanted to carry out purely human rights functions:
“On March 25, we got a message that the column of demonstrators could be attacked by pro-Russian forces who could injure people. We were told that we should be on the alert, so that, in case anything happened, we would be able to oppose them”.
The total number of the people detained and arrested at the protests in the capital and other cities of Belarus until March 25, directly on Freedom Day and after it has exceeded 1,000. Security forces applied unprecedented measures during the preventive detention, or, more correctly – internment: some were savagely beaten, some people’s house entrance even was set on fire to smoke them out from their home, to some punitive psychiatry was applied. Law enforcement agencies in Belarus, also actively practice abduction, with unidentified men in civilian clothes, often using unmarked cars grab people from the streets, thereby creating the operational capacities to hide possible mass physical liquidations of undesirables.
March 5, Freedom Day in Minsk
While reporting as a journalist on the events in the center of Minsk on Freedom Day, the author of these lines was also detained, and subsequently arrested. This experience of mine clearly showed the inhumanity and monstrosity of the internal occupation regime in Belarus. It is built on the abuse, torture, cynicism, outright lies of the so-called “law enforcement” personnel, beating people, forging evidence and documents and committing a perjury in courts. The judges are openly giving unfair advantage to the prosecution with no chance for acquittals. The guards are treating the arrested like livestock in a slaughterhouse. I have enriched my life experience, which is important for me as a journalist, and got finally convinced of the inevitable forthcoming changes in Belarus, where the people have already stopped being afraid.
The last photo before the detention and illegal arrest
Instead, it is the regime that is frightened by the spontaneity and intensity of the rallies, deploying the OMON riot police and the Interior Troops with armored vehicles to crackdown on the peaceful protest. The armored vehicles were identified as belonging to the Special Operations Company (ROSO) from the 3rd Special Forces Brigade of the Interior Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (military unit 3214, stationed in Minsk, Uruchie).
Tigr, Russian infantry mobility vehicle (IMV)
Lis-PM, Russian-Belarusian armored vehicle, issued to the 3rd Special Forces Brigade of the Interior Troops
Water cannons and convoys of paddy wagons ready to receive peaceful protesters
Soldiers of special force unit with riot gear and weapons
The above words of the prisoner, detained by the KGB, about possible attacking the peaceful demonstrators by pro-Russian forces, perhaps, are not so far from the truth. Both Igor Shunevich, the Minister of Internal Affairs of Belarus, born in Luhansk Oblast, presumably in occupied part, who flaunts in parades in the uniform of the soviet NKVD (Ed: the predecessor of the KGB), and Yuriy Karaev, the commander of the Interior Troops, born in Vladikavkaz, and graduated from the Russian Frunze Military Academy, appeared in the story about the potential Russian agents of influence. Andrey Dudkin, the Commander of the above-mentioned 3rd Special Forces Brigade used to a Russian police officer. In Russia, he rose through the ranks to the Company Commander of the 22nd Operational Brigade (Cobra) of the Russian Internal Troops, earning on the way the departmental awards of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia. He naturally fits into the company with the first two.
March 25, Freedom Day, Minsk
Considering all the above, we presume that the regime got its orders from Moscow to destroy the Belarusian patriotic forces, to isolate the opinion leaders, who could mobilize the broad public in a powerful resistance against the possible hybrid aggression and military absorption of Belarus by Russia. Indeed, such a drift of the internal occupation regime clearly fits into the strategic plan to deploy Russian combined arms military group in Belarus and engage the Belarusian army corps in mounting a direct military threat to the Baltic countries, Poland, but above all, to Ukraine.
The line, where Russian military units could strike across the Ukrainian border, will thus increase further by one thousand kilometers, and will extend from Novocherkassk in Rostov Oblast to Brest Oblast of Belarus. This can be further demonstrated by the current joint tactical exercises of Belarusian Special Operations Forces with the units from the 98th and 106th Airborne Divisions of Russia (subunits and individual servicemen of these divisions took part in the military aggression against Ukraine – 1, 2). Belarusian and Russian units are practicing joint planning and conduct of operations within the regional grouping of troops.
All this is fully consistent with the logic of using the territory of Belarus not only as a strategic military foothold, but also as a source of military capabilities, in the interests of the Russian Army, with the Belarusian Army bound by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) agreements to the protection of the allied frontiers of the so-called “Union State”, a unified air defense system, a unified regional grouping of troops, etc.
In order to draw Belarus into the conflict on the side of Russia, there could be other, bigger, provocations carried out on the Belarusian-Ukrainian border. There is a high risk of such provocations during Zapad-2017, the strategic Russian-Belarusian military exercises, scheduled for September this year, when the forces of the 1st Tank Army from the Russian Western Military District will be directly stationed in Belarus.
By depriving the people the right for peaceful protests, refusing to conduct a national dialogue and destroying the civil society the regime is becoming a major factor of destabilization and is creating a threat to the national security of Belarus. Moreover, open provocations against Ukraine undermine neighborly Belarusian-Ukrainian relations, at the same time stepping up military cooperation and integration of the armed forces with the increasingly aggressive Russia contribute significantly to the strategic military risks for Belarus.
By Dzianis Ivashin, the editor of Belarusian service of InformNapalm volunteer intelligence community.
Translated by InformNapalm English
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